Pity the poor Jefferson salamander.
He's not being exterminated, as the developers north of Toronto would prefer to do, by covering his forest-and-wetland habitat with lucrative townhouses and making it impossible for him to breed. But he's not being saved, either, as environmentalists insist he must be, in view of his status as a nationally threatened species, verging on extinction.
Indeed, the fate of this seven-inch amphibian emerges as the archetypal narrative of the great Oak Ridges Moraine hoax: our governments' program to save the moraine in Richmond Hill by covering it with doughnut shops and gas bars.
The threatened salamander's role in this contradiction could have been scripted by Samuel Beckett.
In order to ensure he can make the annual migration from his forest home to the wetlands where he breeds, he will get special tunnels underneath the new Bayview Avenue extension north of Stouffville Road, which bisects the route. Nice tunnels, with lights at either end so he knows where he's going.
In the meantime, the same thoughtful folks who agreed to provide the tunnels went into a back room and decided to barricade the new road on either side with subdivisions filled with hundreds of new buildings and dozens of roads with impassable fences and curbs.
As a result, there probably won't be a single salamander who ever gets to use the special tunnels, according to Natalie Helferty, a Richmond Hill biologist who specializes in amphibians and is the leading local champion of the threatened Jefferson species.
"They're not little Supermen," she said, noting that the new subdivisions will prove utterly impassable to the salamanders. "They don't jump like frogs. They're very prone to dessication and urban predators like raccoons. If they get caught out there in the daylight they will die."
Ms. Helferty was part of a local naturalists group who told York Region it should never extend Bayview Avenue because the route cuts through the heart of the moraine, including the Jefferson forest where the salamanders live (the names are coincidental).
"It's the narrowest part of the moraine and the last major wildlife corridor in Southern Ontario that's still functional," she said, adding that "Richmond Hill is it" when it comes to saving the moraine. "If you don't save Richmond Hill, there's no point doing anything else."
But that plea fell on deaf ears. In fact, biologists for the region insisted there were no Jefferson salamanders in the area. It was only after Ms. Helferty proved otherwise that they acknowledged the reality. The region still went ahead with the road, but decided to build the tunnels to save the salamanders.
Everyone knows what happens when you build new roads through ecologically sensitive areas, and the inevitable occurred when the provincial government unveiled its moraine protection act last year. Part of the "protection" included a hidden deal to build 6,600 new housing units on the moraine in Richmond Hill -- including hundreds on either side of the new Bayview extension, blocking a key migration route for the salamanders as well as all sorts of other amphibians and larger species.
One result will be the extinction of the species that is supposed to benefit from the new tunnels, according to Ms. Helferty. But because Municipal Affairs Minister Chris Hodgson has supported the development with a ministerial order, there's nothing anybody can do to change it. The pure product of secret negotiations, the development deal completely ignores and overrides all the scientific advice the government itself had assembled in support of preservation.
For some reason the province still needs the Ontario Municipal Board to rubber-stamp this mess, a process currently under way. Accordingly, hearing chairman James Mills has decreed that the amphibians needn't climb curbs or fences; instead, he said, they can walk on the roads.